A six-person jury cleared Saifullah Khan of four sexual assault charges on Wednesday, more than two years after the former Yale student was arrested on suspicion of raping another Yale undergraduate on Halloween night 2015.
The long-awaited trial got underway last Monday, and, just over a week later, after hearing testimony from about a dozen witnesses, the jury began deliberating late Tuesday afternoon. It took less than four hours for the jury to reach the verdict that Khan is not guilty of sexual assault in the first, second, third or fourth degrees. Khan, a native of Afghanistan, began sobbing as the verdict was announced and embraced friends and family as he left the courtroom.
“We’re grateful to six courageous jurors who were able to understand that campus life isn’t the real world,” Khan’s lawyer, Norm Pattis, said in an email to the News after the verdict was announced. “Kids experiment with identity and sexuality. When an experiment goes awry, it’s not a crime.”
Khan, who was a senior at Yale studying cognitive science in the fall of 2015, was suspended by the University on Nov. 9, 2015, three days before he was arrested. Pattis said Yale should readmit Khan to “right that wrong.” The other defense attorney, Dan Erwin, said his team will closely follow how Yale responds to the verdict.
Khan referred questions about the verdict to his lawyers.
State Prosecutor Michael Pepper could not be reached for comment after the trial.
The Khan case has drawn national attention as a rare instance of a campus sexual assault case reaching a criminal court. According to Erwin, Khan is entitled to a hearing at Yale regarding his suspension and could potentially be allowed to re-enroll as a full-time student.
After the verdict, Khan’s defense team publicly stated that it would like to see him resume classes by the summer or the fall and obtain his degree within “a reasonable time.” If he re-enrolled, Khan would need to complete two semesters to graduate.
“His life has been on hiatus for two years, and he needs to start rebuilding that,” Erwin said.
Erwin declined to comment on the specific steps his team will take to help Khan re-enroll at Yale. University spokesman Tom Conroy declined to comment on whether Yale will consider readmitting Khan.
During his testimony on Tuesday, Khan told the jury that he and the complainant, referred to in court documents as Jane Doe, left the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s Halloween show and took a stroll through the Grove Street Cemetery, before returning to Trumbull College — where they both lived — shortly after 12:40 a.m. on Nov. 1. At Trumbull, Khan said, he helped Doe open the door to her entryway, said “goodbye” and began walking away. As he was about to enter his entryway, though, Doe called out his name and asked him to come back to her dorm room, Kahn added. He said he then followed Doe back to her room.
In the room, Khan said, Doe began taking her clothes off and performed oral sex on him but vomited after he told her he liked “going deep.” Doe went to take a shower, Khan said, adding that he then called his girlfriend, who testified during the trial that she and Khan have been dating for six years and are in a “long distance, open relationship.” After a two-hour phone call with his girlfriend, Khan said, he had consensual, protected vaginal sex with Doe.
During her testimony, Doe said that Khan had vaginal sex with her in the early hours of Nov. 1 when she was in a state of inebriation. She said she had drunk two rums and cokes, two glasses of wine and one shot of hard liquor earlier that night at a party at Shabtai, a Jewish society, before the YSO show. Surveillance footage shows Doe and Khan walking past Sterling Memorial Library toward Trumbull College at 12:40 a.m. on Nov. 1.
Doe, who testified on the first day of the trial last Monday, said her memory of that night was fragmentary. She said she remembers vomiting after she entered her room, then lying down on her bed fully clothed. At some point during the night, Doe said, she remembers Khan appearing next to her, climbing on top of her and penetrating her.
“I was crying, I tried to say stop but I’m not sure if anything came out,” Doe said in her testimony. “I remember feeling him inside me.”
In the defense’s closing argument, Pattis said there was reason to believe that Doe remembered more than she claimed in her testimony. While Doe said she slipped in an out of consciousness throughout the sexual encounter, Khan testified that Doe did not show any signs of intoxication that night and denied that she slurred her words or appeared unsteady.
In clearing Khan of all four sexual assault charges, jury members concluded that Doe and her team failed to prove that the evidence showed “beyond a reasonable doubt” — the highest standard of proof used in jurisprudence — that Khan had committed a crime.
At a potential hearing within the University, however, Khan would face a different evidentiary standard.
Yale, like most U.S. colleges, adjudicates sexual misconduct allegations using a lower standard of proof than that used in criminal courts. Per the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, a student is disciplined if evidence shows that the misconduct more likely than not occurred. Most civil court proceedings use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard.
In 2011, the Department of Education under the President Barack Obama issued a “Dear Colleague” letter recommending that colleges use the “preponderance of evidence” standard in sexual assault adjudications. In September 2017, Trump-appointed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded the requirement, paving the way for colleges to use a higher standard, known as “clear and convincing evidence.”
But, at the time, University Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler pledged that the federal policy change would not affect the standard of proof that Yale uses to adjudicate sexual assault cases.
Families Advocating Campus Equality, a group that advocates for the due process of those accused of sexual misconduct, remained by Khan’s side throughout the trial. In a statement to the News, FACE director Cynthia Garrett described Khan as a “kind man,” adding that in this case, the system “worked.”
Reactions from Yale students flooded social media following the verdict of not guilty, with many expressing frustration with how Doe was treated by the defense.
“The defense did everything they could to blame the defendant and discredit her,” said Helen Price ’18, the co-founder of Unite Against Sexual Assault at Yale. “They asked her why she didn’t choose a more modest Halloween costume. This is precisely what victims are terrified will happen if they come forward.”
According to a 2014 U.S. Department of Justice report, 20 percent of female student rape and sexual assault victims between the ages of 18 and 24 report the offense to the police.
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